NYF Radio Programs & Promos Awards Spotlight Interview: Denise Donlon

In the coming months we’ll be getting up close and personal with respected game-changers from the radio community, exploring their individual formulas for success  and their thoughts on the ever-changing world of all things radio. This month the spotlight is on award-winning Densie Donlon, former Executive Director of CBC Radio, former President of Sony Canada and innovator at MuchMusic. During Ms. Donlon’s tenure, CBC Radio was awarded the New York Festivals International Radio Programs & Promo Awards® Broadcaster of the Year Award two years in a row.

Densie Donlon

NYF: You can be summarized as a catalyst, creative leader, and communicator. Your career path in the broadcast industry has taken you on quite an incredible journey. In addition to your previous position as CBC Radio’s Executive Director your career path has included many other interesting leadership posts. To what qualities do you attribute you success and is there a personal philosophy that guided you to your extraordinary success?

DD: You’re very kind, thank you. I’ve been inspired by a quote that I believe is by Winston Churchill: “You make a living by what you get, you make a life by what you give”. I’ve always felt compelled to find a way to make a positive societal contribution no matter what career path I happened to be on. At MuchMusic, we embarked on a program we called “The Drive For Relevance’ and I endeavoured to mix a little media literacy and community engagement in between the Guns N Roses and Madonna videos. Together with thoughtful artists, we produced specials on everything from the Environment (REM, Sting), to Apartheid (Little Steven, Simple Minds, Peter Gabriel) to Anti Racism initiatives (Lenny Kravitz, Public Enemy) to campaigns that encouraged young people to exercise their democratic right. At Sony, even in turbulent business times, we found ways to engage with artists in goodwill initiatives, such as producing a bestselling Peace Songs CD that raised $750,000.00 for women and children affected by war. In hindsight, it seems that my personal ‘public service’ narrative naturally paved the way to my position as a public broadcaster.

NYF: Under your watch as Executive Director of Radio Canadian Broadcasting Corp, the network earned the Broadcaster of the Year Award two years in a row. What did achieving this honor mean to the network and creative team?

DD: The Broadcaster of the Year awards were especially meaningful in those years because they followed a year of massive budget cuts to the Corporation. We wrestled with terribly difficult choices that included cuts to current affairs, drama, news and music, as well as to the national and small regional stations. No show nor department was spared given the depth of the fiscal challenge. And while it was both painful and personal, CBC staff still found ways to reach further, dig deeper to produce uniquely compelling, world class content. The fact that their work was recognized in such a stellar manner under such harsh conditions was a joyful validation of the talent and dedication of CBC staff.

NYF: You have initiated many projects that have brought together music, journalism; social issues and human rights advocacy, what is your latest project and how did you become involved with this project?

DD: My latest project of this nature was in May of last year. I produced and hosted a documentary on Access To Justice in Northern Uganda. I went with War Child Canada to document their support of legal advocates to build a sustainable system of human rights advocacy and provide redress for conflict survivors. I’ve produced similar docs in post conflict countries like Sierra Leone and the Thai Burmese border and I’ve never failed to be humbled and motivated and reminded to count my blessings.

NYF: As a Grand Jury member for the New York Festivals International Radio Programs & Promos Awards what are you “listening” for when judging entries. In your opinion, what makes an entry award-worthy?

DD: When I was working as a record company president, you’d often hear the line ‘Don’t bore us, get to the chorus’!! The same could be said for great radio. An award-winning entry captures the listeners’ attention right off the mark, and then the storytelling skill holds them spellbound. You can add all the sonic bells and whistles you like (and I LOVE creative soundcrafting) but if you don’t have start with a compelling story or provide essential news, you won’t hold anyone’s attention for long in a noisy multimedia world.

NYF: What inspires you?

DD: When I see people do well by doing good.

NYF: Your industry awards are numerous: Broadcast Executive of the Year at the Canadian Music Week Industry Awards three times; the Toronto’s Women in Film & Television Outstanding Achievement Award; Wired Women’s Woman of Vision Award and the Canadian Women in Communications Woman of the Year Award; inductee into Canadian Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame twice. Do you have any advice for young broadcasters hoping to emulate your success?

DD: I’ve had moderate success, but nothing trumps a strong work ethic and an innate curiosity. A reasonably astute person can be taught radio and television skills but if you don’t have those two essential attributes to start, you won’t prevail.

NYF: In 2004, you were made a Member of the Order of Canada, Canada’s highest civilian honor. This fellowship, administered by the Governor General-in-Council on behalf of the Queen recognizes the achievement of outstanding merit or distinguished service by Canadians who made a major difference to Canada through lifelong contributions in every field of endeavor. This is such an honor, what did receiving this honor mean to you?

DD: Honestly? The moment that I found out, I burst into tears. I had just arrived home from two tough days in Ottawa where I’d been campaigning for copyright reform with a rather feisty group of publishers, broadcasters, artists and lobbyists. We took all the right meetings with all the right politicians, but I was tired and spent and certain that we got nothing but lip service and a photo op. I opened the door to my house and found a registered letter telling me that I’d been honoured with the Order. My first thought was that they’d made a mistake.

Just being in the same room with your fellow inductees at Rideau Hall is the most chest busting awe inspiring pinch yourself moment you can possibly imagine.

The motto of the Order is Desiderantes meliorem patriam which means “They Desire a Better Country”.  It’s a tall order too, as wearing the insignia is a constant reminder to endeavour to make a meaningful contribution.

The New York Festivals International Radio Programs & Promos Awards® is open for entries. Entry Deadline is March 18th, 2013.

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